Case Study: Being British, being somebody else

The CWGC memorial for H. Reid (left) and the Reid family memorial (right) to which his name has been added. Westray, orkney. Photograph courtesy of Sarah Tarlow

At St Mary’s kirkyard on Rousay, Orkney, is a military memorial erected to the memory of Private H. Reid who died in 1917 at the age of 23 (see Tarlow 1999, 157-8). Most casualties of the Great War are buried in military graveyards, and this type of memorial is thus most common in those contexts. In this case, however, the individual concerned died convalescing on Orkney and the burial took place in a local graveyard.

Because Private Reid’s gravestone was of a standard type issued by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), it follows the normal first World War pattern of having only a rank, serial number and first initial, together with the name of his regiment and a short epitaph chosen from a list (in this case ‘Their memory hallowed in the land they loved’). The ornamentation on the stone is restricted to the regimental badge and a religious symbol (a cross). Private Reid is commemorated here as a soldier and his identity is tied to the wider corporate body of his regiment and of the army. The epitaph further emphasises this corporate identity (‘Their memory . . .‘) and links Reid to those others who have died at war and to the nation for which they fought (‘the land they loved‘).

There is no information on this memorial about Private Reid’s home, his personality, his family and their feelings, their hopes for his eternal life or for meeting him again. These sentiments are common on civilian monuments of the period but absent from this military memorial, with its corporate and national focus. In Private Reid’s case, the family attempted to make up for this by adding his name to the adjacent gravestone of his mother (who died in 1894, either while giving birth to him or soon afterwards). Here, ‘Private H. Reid’ is remembered simply as ‘Harry’, and his identity is that of a son. This memorial gives the names of both of his parents and his place of death.

This example shows how commemoration chooses to accentuate a particular aspect of a person’s social being. In the case of CWGC monuments, like the community war memorials that exist throughout Scotland, that aspect was as a member of a large corporate and national whole, rather than an individualised person. These monuments materialise and contribute to the creation of persons as components of a national body. This was not always adequate to mourning families who preferred to individualise their dead and relate them to their family.

Return to Section 5.4 Being Scottish, or being something else

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